Taking Classics into the 21st Century: Pemberley Digital's Modernized Adaptations of Classic Literature
by Rikki Roccanti
There is no easy way around teaching classic literature. We try to make it interesting – or at least as painless as possible. We try to fit the movie adaptation into our busy curriculum. We try to incorporate technology. We try to find YouTube videos that relate. In effect, we are trying to pull these classic texts into the 21st century. Good news. There are other people working on this as well, and they have done much of the hard work for us.
The name of our hard-working savior is Pemberley Digital (http://www.pemberleydigital.com), a web video production company that creates modernized adaptations of classic texts through the use of new media platforms. The company began this venture with their adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, The Lizzie Bennett Diaries, which won an Emmy in the field of outstanding creative achievement in interactive media. The video series, produced by Hank Green and Bernie Su, envisions Lizzie Bennett as a vivacious, 24 year-old master's student creating a video dairy for a final project in a mass communications class. In addition to The Lizzie Bennett Diaries, Pemberley Digital is currently producing Emma Approved, an adaptation of Austen's novel Emma. For their next project, which will begin in August, the company is teaming up with PBS and breaking-ground on non-Austen classic with the creation of Frankenstein, MD which will reimagine the protagonist of Mary Shelley’s novel as Victoria Frankenstein, a female physician obsessed with proving herself in the male dominated field of medicine.
As modernized adaptations, these video series reimagine many of the details of the classic novels but include the main characters and follow the same general plot. The details of the novel change because they are refashioned into a form that contemporary audiences would more readily understand and to which they could relate. For instance, Darcy's house, Pemberley, does not exist in The Lizzie Bennett Diaries. In the video series the significance of Pemberley is transferred to the company Darcy runs, Pemberley Digital (which the series' production company eventually adopted as its name). Houses were signifiers of wealth, status, and identity in Regency England, so the series producers translate what Austen was trying to signify through Darcy's house to a modern day signifier – a company run by Darcy – in order to retain a sense of meaning for a contemporary audience.
Not only does Pemberley Digital modernize the adaptations through contemporary signifiers, but they also pull Austen's classic novels into the twenty-first century through the use of transmedia storytelling practices which communicate elements of the story through new media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, Linkedin, and Lookbook,. These venues serve to further immerse audiences in the story worlds of the adaptations as well as serve as interfaces which encourage audience participation through feedback as well as the collection, sharing, and discussion of story content. In the series Emma Approved, Emma Woodhouse is a matchmaker and lifestyle expert at Highbury Partners Lifestyle Group, and as such she uses her Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, and Tumblr pages to keep everyone tuned into her work life. For example, when Emma throws a bachelor’s auction as part of a benefit on human rights (the equivalent of the ball scene in Emma) Emma does not bring her video camera with her to the auction but @EmmaApproved tweeted about what was happening at the event to keep audiences engaged until the next video came out to recap the auction.
While these modernized, transmediated adaptations are of course entertaining on their own, they could also be easily incorporated into a middle or secondary English class teaching one of the classic novels. Each video is only around 4-7 minutes long which would make for a nice opening activity to transition students to talking about the novel. But the stories created by Pemberley Digital are not merely tools to distract students from the original novels or to keep their eyes from falling shut. These stories provide students with new ways to interact with old stories through the use of new media and participatory practices. These stories are providing students with new ways to “read” and engage with class literature. The stories can also open up interesting discussions about why the producers made the decisions they did in adapting the show. What have they changed and why? Does the story retain the same meanings? How are the producers using social media to add to the story? Not only can these stories serve as a means to analyze the classic novels, but their transmedia characteristics create gaps which encourage further expansion. For instance, students could create their own v-logs telling the story from another character’s point of view or from a scene (like the dance in Emma) that was discussed but not shown.
However you use these stories in your classroom, Pemberley Digital can attest to the fact that classic literature still intrigues and delights us. And it continues to inspire us. It inspires us to create our own stories out of the woodwork of timeless texts. And it inspires us to find new ways to keep the story timeless by utilizing the tools of 21st century storytelling to reach a new generation of young adults.